The race is on to develop greener fuels and chemicals from renewable resources, and Boulder, Colo.–based OPX Biotechnologies, Inc. — with two Washington University alumni at the helm — is in the race to win.
Mike Lynch, MD/PhD, AB ’00, BSBME ’00, MSBME ’00, the driving force behind the company’s platform technologies, co-founded OPX Biotechnologies (OPXBIO) in 2007 and serves as chief scientific officer. Chas Eggert, BSChE ’75, MBA ’85, came on board as president and CEO in 2008, bringing a wealth of chemical industry experience. Together, these innovators are rapidly propelling OPXBIO toward the lead in the emerging bioproducts industry.
Bioproducts are derived from renewable biological resources rather than nonrenewable resources, such as petroleum. Currently, petroleum-based products dominate the market in many areas, including fuel and acrylics.
OPXBIO is entering the existing $8–10 billion global acrylic market with its first renewable chemical product, BioAcrylic. Acrylic is used in the manufacture of numerous consumer applications, including paints, adhesives and diapers. Utilizing renewable resources, BioAcrylic can be produced at a lower cost than petroleum-based acrylic, with equivalent performance and up to 75 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The first BioAcrylic commercial plant is expected to begin production in 2014.
The key to creating BioAcrylic — and what gives OPXBIO its competitive edge — is the company’s proprietary EDGE™ (Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering) technology, developed by Lynch and company co-founder Ryan Gill, PhD, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. EDGE allows rapid assessment and engineering of high-performance microbes for bioprocesses. These specialized microbes can convert sugar-based feedstock into acrylic acid in inexpensive growing conditions.
The technology can be leveraged into producing new microbes for production of other chemicals and fuels from a wide range of renewable feedstocks. EDGE technology is more than 1,000 times faster than conventional genetic engineering methods, meaning OPXBIO can create optimized microbes and bioprocesses within months rather than years — and this propels OPXBIO ahead of the competition.
The company was chosen from among 540 applicants to win a $6 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy) for its second product. This product is fatty acid derived from a syngas feedstock that can be used to create renewable diesel and jet fuel, as well as chemicals. Syngas is an abbreviation for synthesis gas, produced through the gasification of carbon-based materials, such as municipal waste or biomass.
Mike Lynch, who has an MD/PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Colorado, never expected to be in the chemical or alternative fuels industries. He studied biomedical engineering and anthropology at Washington University before deciding to attend medical school.
“I focused a lot on the sociocultural aspect of anthropology,” he says. “Social science is very nuanced compared to technological science. I thought medicine would be a good way to be able to do the science and develop technical skills but also keep that human component in my career.”
While working in Gill’s lab to identify how pathogenic microorganisms become tolerant of multiple clinical antibiotics, Lynch realized that the existing tools for engineering the microorganisms for study were inadequate to the task. He changed the focus of his research from the pathogen study to the development of better research tools.
Lynch and Gill soon realized that this work could have much broader applications. They patented the EDGE technology, and in 2007 OPX Biotechnologies was born. After carefully examining the biochemical and biofuel markets and margins, they began to build the company.
Chas Eggert was a very good fit for OPXBIO. He came to the company after a 32-year career with three different global chemical companies, including 20 years at Monsanto. He brought with him all his accumulated industry knowledge, experience and relationships.
“Those things are important in a young company like this,” Eggert says. “I was able to bring not only knowledge of markets, products and technology, but also relationships with players in the industry who are capable of supporting rapid development and commercialization of OPXBIO’s products.”
His experience includes new product development and commercialization, working with venture capitalists, global business management and, of course, acrylics. He has a deep background in the precise product and market area that is the main focus of OPXBIO today.
“Mike and I come from different generations,” Eggert says. “Mike’s academic work was largely around genetic and genomic engineering, working inside microbial cells, which essentially become the factory to produce usable materials. In my chemical engineering education, the focus was on large factories built with lots of steel. So there’s an interesting change in paradigm, where now we’re using the power of biotechnology to accomplish the production of these valuable chemicals and fuels, but doing so inside a microbial cell with less capital and with a much lower environmental impact. After 32 years in traditional chemical engineering, I am fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to work in an entirely new emerging area in the production of chemicals and fuels.”
Both men credit Washington University with providing them with important tools for success. Eggert and his family are longtime university supporters. His wife, Holly, graduated from the university in 1979 with a degree in fine arts, and his son, Charles, earned a mechanical engineering degree in 2007.
“I think it was a very positive time in my life, setting me up for a career in ways that I probably didn’t appreciate until much later,” Lynch says. “I never perceived road blocks at Washington U. And when I look back at my time there, I see that I bounced around a lot with different interests and really got to figure out what I liked to do and what I wanted to do. The freedom to pursue those things — in an environment with structure and focus and a lot of nurturing and caring — helped me to make good decisions going forward in my career.”
Although that career has taken an unexpected turn, Lynch, like Eggert, is embracing the challenge of leading the chemicals industry into uncharted territory.
“The technology platform is great,” Lynch says, “but our success is directly attributable to the really great team we have. They’ve done amazing things.”
Partnerships with proven industry leaders such as The Dow Chemical Company are key to OPXBIO’s success. Leveraging Dow’s expertise with manufacturing and distribution in the acrylic market means OPXBIO can deploy its own expertise more efficiently.
“We will be a world leader in the production of chemicals from renewable raw materials,” Eggert asserts. “And we will continue to be recognized as a company with a very powerful biotechnology platform for making the production of those chemicals cost effective.”
While its first commercial factory is not yet operational, OPXBIO is already an award-winning company. It was named to Biofuels Digest’s “30 Hottest Companies in Renewable Chemicals and Materials” list for 2011–12. Earlier this year, Biofuels Digestawarded OPXBIO the Renewable Chemical Product of the Year Award for its BioAcrylic process. In 2010, it was one of the GoingGreen Silicon Valley Top 100 and also a finalist for the “Breakout Cleantech Company of the Year” award by the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association.
“We’ve taken the stance that we always need to be improving ourselves,” Lynch says, “keeping an eye on the advances, both in this technology and related technologies, as well as building partnerships. EDGE is the platform we have, and if we want to keep it on the leading edge, we need to keep improving and moving forward, because the field is only going to get more competitive as the technology develops.”
Terri McClain is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Mo.
Learn more about OPX Biotechnologies.